Oil spill drill south of Lummi Island tests cleanup process

The scenario: Two vessels collide just southwest of Lummi Island around 5:45 on a Thursday morning, spilling more than 4,000 gallons of sticky, heavy oil into north Puget Sound.

The boats quickly anchor at Vendovi Island and start the process of getting cleanup contractors to the scene and protecting the shore from the spreading oil.

This is just a drill. But the practice is very real.

The state Department of Ecology designed the scenario to test the real interaction between different cleanup companies responding to separate spills in the same area, and how they work with others, including volunteers, to clean up oil while protecting valuable resources nearby.

Ecology ran the first of its kind drill, which was required by legislation passed in 2011, on Thursday, April 14.

The legislation requires Ecology to run large-scale tests every three years to confirm that the owners and operators of oil tanker vessels can comply with preparedness plans they need to have on file.

The law also required simultaneous testing of multiple preparedness plans, to see how trained people can handle a large spill with multiple elements.

On Thursday, that meant while some crews were skimming the water to clean up the imaginary oil spill, others were deploying boom lines around sensitive and protected areas on Vendovi Island to prevent the “oil” from damaging them.

Just southeast of where the drill took place lies Samish Bay and its thousands of acres of shellfish beds that provide more than $3 million of oyster and clam sales per year.

“That’s all in jeopardy if we get a spill,” said Bill Dewey, director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish Farms.

Dewey said Taylor Shellfish was in the process of getting signed onto the state’s new Vessels of Opportunity program, which was also created with House Bill 1186 in 2011, that allows for people to volunteer their fishing boats or recreational vessels to be used in the event of a spill.

Two of the country’s largest oil spill response companies, Marine Spill Response Corp. and National Response Corp., participated in Thursday’s drill as the contractors who would normally help clean up in that situation.

NRC practiced using a drone to conduct aerial surveillance also required by the 2011 oil legislation.

The drone, owned by AeroVironment, was hand-launched off a smaller boat (a man lifted the drone above his shoulder and hurled the small plane-like device out over the water), and allowed anyone with a link to watch a live stream of its video.

Other groups involved in the drill included Harley Marine Services, BP Shipping LTD, Alaska Tanker Company, SeaRiver Maritime, Polar Tankers and Washington State Maritime Cooperative.

“Washington is unique — we grade our oil exercises, and we get better plans because of that,” said Dave Byers, spill response manager for Ecology. “Oil companies use Washington as their training ground because we are so strict. ... We’ve been told by Shell and BP that if they can respond here they can respond anywhere in the world.”

Though testing equipment and running drills can get costly, that prevention expense pays off, Byers said.

“It pays off in making oil handlers very aware of the expense and cost to them if they have a spill,” Byers said. “Washington has the lowest spill rate of coastal communities in the country, both by number of spills and by volume.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil